Measuring the State of Opportunity in America: 6 Things You Should Know

Inside the latest research on opportunity from Gallup and the Center for Advancing Opportunity, supported by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation

October 26, 2020

min read

Amid the pandemic and societal turmoil leading to calls for greater justice, rarely has the disparity in access to opportunity and public safety been more apparent. And recent data show the gaps are persistent and widespread across the United States. 

Global analytics firm Gallup has for the last three years collaborated with the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) — a partnership between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries — to study the opinions of those living in “fragile communities.” As part of Koch's enduring mission to help all people achieve their potential, CAO and Gallup have released the third annual study examining access to opportunity for 6,941 residents of fragile communities, from Appalachia to large urban areas. Conducted between November 2019 and January 2020, the survey reveals lagging access to education opportunities, job prospects and health care compared to the rest of America, inhibiting people in these communities from reaching their full potential.  

What is a fragile community? Simply described, it is a community characterized by high proportions of residents who are struggling daily with limited opportunities for social mobility. This is measured by four components: unemployment rate (the percentage of working-age adults not in the labor force), poverty rate (percentage of residents with household income below the poverty level); education level (percentage of adults with a college degree); and a wellbeing score (based on a Gallup index measuring five interrelated aspects of wellbeing: sense of career purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical health). Compared with U.S. adults overall, residents of fragile communities are almost twice as likely to have household incomes under $35,000. Just 1 in 10 residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 1 in 3 U.S. adults overall. 

“The lives of residents of America's fragile communities are critical to understand at this time, but they are not understood well enough,” said Camille Lloyd, director of Gallup’s Center on Black Voices, in a news release announcing the report. “The third year of our research on fragile communities with the Center for Advancing Opportunity reveals new opportunities as well as persistent ones that demand attention from leaders.”

The results are eye-opening. Here are six things you should know about the state of opportunity from this year’s report:

 

1.    STRUGGLE OVER INCOME, CAREER ADVANCEMENT AND ADDICTION

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Last year, nearly half (47%) of all Americans said they were “living comfortably” on their current income, while just 1 in 5 (20%) of residents in fragile communities felt the same way. When presented with a list of 14 potential barriers to opportunity to overcome, people in fragile communities most frequently pointed to two: a lack of enough jobs that offer career advancement (39%) and drug or alcohol addiction (35%). .


2.    LACK OF TRUST IN LAW ENFORCEMENT 

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One of the report's key takeaways from its criminal justice findings: Racial disparities persist, with Black residents in fragile communities being more likely than white or Hispanic residents to say they have been mistreated by the police and legal system. The study found 60% of Black residents in fragile communities said they knew “some” people or “a lot” of people who were treated unfairly by the police. That’s significantly more than 31% of white residents and 39% of Hispanic residents in fragile communities who said the same. In addition, about half (49%) of Black residents in fragile communities said they knew “some” people or “a lot” of people who were unfairly sent to jail, while just 19% of white residents and 23% of Hispanic residents said the same. Only about 1 in 4 Black residents said they were “very confident” local police would treat them with courtesy and respect, compared with 1 in 3 Hispanic residents (33%) and nearly half (47%) of white residents.

 

3.   HEALTH CARE QUALITY LAGS

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While nearly three-quarters (74%) of all Americans said they were satisfied with the availability of health care in their area, just 58% of residents in fragile communities said the same. Only a third (33%) of residents in fragile communities described their health as “excellent” or “very good,” and about the same share (31%) described it as “fair” or “poor.”

 

4.    AFFORDABLE COLLEGE EDUCATION SEEMS INACCESSIBLE

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While more than half (55%) of residents in fragile communities said a college education is “very important,” just 28% said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that all people in their area have access to an affordable college education.

 

5.    PANDEMIC OR NOT, FINDING A JOB IS A KEY CONCERN

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At the time the survey was conducted, the national unemployment rate was around 3.5%. As of August 2020, the national rate stood at 8.4% amid economic instability surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. That rate, while more than double that of before the pandemic, is still lower than the 1 in 6 (16.7%) residents in fragile communities who at the time of the survey were jobless and looking for work.

 

6.   STRONG CONFIDENCE IN IMPROVING THEIR LIVES

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About 7 in 10 residents in fragile communities said they were “very confident” or “confident” that they could improve their own lives. Researchers found that the best predictors of confidence came from self-reported health statuses, which are strongly correlated to income levels. While 43% of those with household incomes of less than $24,000 described their health as “fair” or “poor,” just 14% of those with incomes of $90,000 or more said the same. 

Also linked to self-confidence: access to educational opportunities that focus on discovering and building strengths, as well as access to social networks that can boost economic mobility.

 

Read the full report here, and search the full Opportunity Dashboard with three years of data here.

See some of the ways Koch Industries is battling injustice in communities across the country here.